"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
[Spoiler Alert: Arthur C. Clark conceals the meaning behind his story till the end of his short book (214 pages in paperback). In my synopsis below, I chose to reveal part of this meaning to contextualize Clark’s ideas about education in the future. If you don’t mind destroying some of the mystery of the plot in order to delve more deeply into some of the author’s ideas, I encourage you to read on.]
Childhood’s End (1953) is a futuristic novel about humankind reaching its evolutionary pinnacle. Before reaching this plateau, however, humanity needs the supervision of a superior alien race: the Overlords. This bureaucratic species leverages the spectacle of its technological development and cultural awareness to bring about a Golden Age of peace and prosperity on Earth.
Notably, the aliens preside over the gradual dissolution of nation states and religion. These divisive cultural institutions no longer form boundaries to hinder communication and connection. The Overlords also do away with exploitative economic relationships until all regions enjoy the same high standard of living.
The surprising fact about this is that the aliens largely do not interfere with human activities. Again, they are supervisors. It is the mere fact of their presence, and obvious superiority, that goads humankind to a higher plane of existence. [It’s worth pausing to consider the role of an embodied ideal (a mentor, an archetype, a hero) in our own personal development.]
When humankind rises above violence and material lack, what does education look like? Clark describes a system in which every individual pursues a Renaissance curriculum tailored to their talents and interests. In a world of material abundance, there is no need to study subjects for purely pragmatic reasons. Also, there’s no need to hurry.
“At twenty-seven, Jan still had several years of college life ahead of him before he needed to this seriously about his career…His main [bachelor’s degree] subjects had been mathematics and physics, but as subsidiaries he had taken philosophy and music appreciation…he was a first-rate amateur pianist.
“In three years he would take his doctorate in engineering physics, with astronomy as a second subject.”
I sighed deeply after reading this part. At least on a very personal level, I think the realization of one’s material needs and constraints post-education can greatly shape the experience of education itself. Just ask any US student burdened by student loans. In the current, globalized state of our economy with lower-skilled jobs moving overseas and Information Age opportunities not quite abundant at home, these considerations are often paramount for students.
To survive in high-income countries in the Information Age, more people will need the diverse skills and knowledge necessary to champion innovative projects that produce greater value for others. Arthur C. Clark proposes a system where this is the norm. Perhaps with this supervising ideal, a plan, patience, and a leap of faith, the luckier ones among us might realize this potential.